As we struggle to live a spiritual life in harmony with our neighbors, it's comforting to know that those who have gone before us faced some of the same challenges. The Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers, who lived as hermits in Egypt and the Middle East in the third to fifth centuries, developed an everyday spirituality that can teach us about patience, humility, inner peace, and hospitality. Known as the abbas and the ammas, they were often visited by spiritual seekers who asked them for "a word." This wisdom has been collected in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers translated with a foreword by Benedicta Ward, an Anglican nun.
In one instance, Abba Nilus advised: "Do not be always wanting everything to turn out as you think it should, but rather as God pleases, then you will be undisturbed and thankful in your prayer." This advice not only applies to prayer but to all of our attempts to have things go as we expect them to.
Expectations can be a big stumbling block for us, both personally and communally. There is an old story about a man who hunted rabbits. One day when he was out in the woods, a rabbit ran past him and collided with a tree stump, knocking itself unconscious. The man couldn't believe his good fortune as he put the rabbit in his game bag. Every day for the rest of his life, he came back and watched the stump, waiting for this to happen again.
When we participate in some activity, especially something we've done before, we often have big expectations about what will happen, how we will feel, and what the end result will be. When all does not go as expected, we are disappointed. Usually we then look around for someone or something to blame.
Fred calls himself a recovering expecter. He's had the most trouble with expectations in his friendships. Expecting to match the intimacy, equality, and intensity of a meaningful childhood friendship has gotten in the way of his adult friendships. He has had to learn to approach each friend with an open heart and not burden the relationship with his previous experience.
The first step in dealing with expectations is to be aware of how often we have them. Take a few minutes to think about a typical day. How often do you expect something to happen, and how do you feel when it doesn't?
We expect the mail to come at a certain time and when it's late, we get mad. We expect that a co-worker will meet a deadline but he doesn't, and we think he has made us look bad. We expect a friend to call with news that we deem important, but she doesn't and we feel she has let us down.
Now add to these common expectations the ton of them that come from the media. Advertisements tell us how we should look, how much money we should earn, what things we should have, and how things should unfold in our lives if we are good people. As we internalize these expectations, we wreck havoc on our self-esteem.
The Desert Fathers and Mothers recommend a different approach. Unrealistic expectations inevitably cause feelings of disappointment, anger, and resentment. We need to recognize that we are not in charge, and we cannot control what others do. Let things be as God pleases, and we will be undisturbed.
Try as a daily practice to not become attached to particular outcomes. Keep scissors on your desk, and whenever your mind begins to gear up to have things go your way, pick up the scissors and take two snips, cutting your expectations.
Finally, make a conscious effort to free yourself from prepackaged cultural expectations. Let your models be Jesus and other spiritual teachers who confound all our ideas about who they will be and who stay open to grace-filled surprises.